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Many years ago in a debate on agriculture in the Rajya Sabha, Eknath Thakore, a low-key Shiv Sena member, made an impassioned speech pointing out that we were all children of farmers, once, twice or thrice removed from the farm. How true! But the fact is that we have always wanted to escape from the farm. Sure, in feudal times, land was power; pride was measured in acres and prestige in the number of retainers and slaves. But that world has crumbled for the good and the slaves keep escaping to the cities to run away from oppression, caste violence, stagnation and most important of all, poverty. Farming is a zero-sum game. A bad crop means devastation, debts and often death by pesticide. But a bumper crop means a glut and hence loss of prices and again devastation. As a society we have been terribly cruel to our cousins whom we have left behind in the farms to feed us in the cities. This year they had a bumper crop. But the numbers are cruelly stark: the price of almost every commodity has crashed. Take the example of garlic. It was selling for Rs 100 a kg last year and now it is just Rs 10-25. Red chilli has come down from Rs 120 to Rs 50-60. Tur daal was Rs 9,000 a quintal last year. This year it fetches just Rs 3,700. Chana has come down by Rs 7,000 per quintal from Rs 12,000 to Rs 5,000.
This is a systemic failure, undoubtedly. But it is primarily the failure of the Union government because even the prime minister’s greatest admirers are blaming this crash on demonetisation. Outlook works out of an office next to south Delhi’s best-known dhabha. Right after demonetisation, it was completely empty. In a few days it switched over to plastic money. Still, the crowds stayed away. Tandoori chicken was definitely not an essential commodity. So, it took some time for the situation to return to normalcy. Now, it is again impossible to walk out of the office after 8 pm as the entire parking lot and the pathways are chock-a-block with people greedily gorging on a chicken or a goat.
Similarly, the mandis or our markets, the lifeline of rural economy, were also sucked dry of liquid cash. But reports from Madhya Pradesh suggest there is still a dearth of cash in rural pockets, probably resulting in the farmers’ agitation that cost many lives in Mandsaur. More detailed investigation and analysis are required to understand the larger impact of demonetisation on our rural economy. But it is sad if this present farm crisis is the result of a liquidity crunch. We could have eaten less of lamb lababdar in the cities, which anyway had switched over to plastic in a huge way. The mandis of Mandsaur needed those currency notes badly.
Worse, while we send satellites to monitor crops and run drones to detect deficiencies, we still cannot ensure remunerative prices to our farmers. This is no rocket science. Even when prices crash at farm gates and wholesale markets, they hardly move at the retail outlets, which is a clear proof of the middleman’s cut. Middlemen at every level control our farm economy. And when, finally, the farmer commits suicide, the government waives off loans. Let us not keep on waiving off loans. Instead, let us give farmers the price their produce deserves. Let there be better access to markets, better storage facilities in times of a bumper crop and let us not treat them like beggars at the mercy of mandis, middlemen and bank managers.